by Brenda Nixon
With loss of people, pets and the familiar comes a stinging sadness. Educating children about death and guiding them through grief is something we prefer to avoid. But it’s one of our teachable moments. With our help, children can embrace the feelings that death brings, learn new coping skills and appreciate the treasure of life.
Children grieve differently than adults and they struggle with grief, both in the aftermath of a death and well beyond.
Says marriage and family therapist Stacy Harp, president of the communications firm Mind & Media, “Children perceive death differently than adults because they are not fully developed intellectually or emotionally. It is very important to be sensitive when they want to communicate, and also to be comfortable enough with them to discuss the topic yourself.” Ways to assist depend upon your child’s age.
Preschoolers: Be Honest
With children ages 3-5, here are important things to remember.
• Young children will sense a loss even if adults try to hide it. They pick up nonverbal cues from you, family members, friends and even through the media.
• They don’t understand death. They often think dead people continue to eat, drink and go to the bathroom in heaven. Harp explains that young children perceive death “as temporary or reversible because they watch cartoons characters that often ‘come back to life.’ What they see is what they understand.”
• Little kids often have mystical ideas. Here are some typical thoughts: If I walk on a grave, the person feels it. If I had bad thoughts about the person, then I caused the death. If I wish it, I can make someone live again.
Because of their immaturity, small children respond to death with behavior that can include increased clinginess or dependence on you, more tantrums, bed-wetting or constipation, and nightmares or sleepwalking. So what can you do to help?
• Use the word “death” or “dead.” Never say “went to sleep” or “passed away.” Get used to saying the word so it becomes less shocking.
• Answer questions in short sentences using simple, honest words.
• Give physical and verbal comfort as needed. Holding a child is an effective calming tool.
• Stick to schedules, including the same bedtime every night.
• Use dolls or pictures to help answer questions or explain what happened. Similarly, advises Harp, “find a good storybook that deals with the issue of loss or grief. Read the book aloud and then allow the child to ask questions and make observations. Many children may also benefit from drawing pictures of their loved ones and expressing things they might not be able to verbalize.”
Elementary Age: Stability
Children ages 6-12 often have the following reactions to death.
• They might struggle with the concept of death as permanent. They could expect the dead person or pet to return.
• They believe death won’t happen to them.
• School-age kids sometimes have delayed responses to death. It could be a week or a month later when they mourn.
• They ask more questions about “what happened” or show curiosity in causes of death.
Behaviors that occur after death can include a loss of concentration resulting in daydreaming or poorer school performance, resistance to going to school, and real or imagined ailments.
You can help an elementary-age child cope with death in several ways.
• Don’t give in to resistance to bedtime or going to school.
• Limit TV viewing of tragedies that can fuel more fears.
• Read books about death and dying.
• As much as possible, maintain the same household routines, mealtimes and bedtimes. Children feel safer when their life is predictable.
• Help the child find closure. Because children are concrete thinkers, Harp advises giving them “tangible ways to express their grief. Allowing them to go to the memorial service is good, and having a transitional object such as a teddy bear or a reminder of what was lost can also be helpful.”
Teens: Be Available
Teenagers react to death in varied ways, including seeing it as a natural enemy but “it won’t happen to me!” They might come to grips with death’s inevitability, then wonder “what’s the purpose of life?” or “why is life unfair?” They can suddenly view getting old as a process that results in death.
Teens can react to death by feeling guilty, angry, confused or even responsible for the death. They might want to stay up watching TV to avoid going to bed alone, or try to relieve their grief through jokes, laughing or acting silly. They often struggle with not knowing how to feel, how to show emotions or when to “act” a certain way. They can sometimes withdraw or feel panic about the future
“The best way to help teenagers is to be available when they are ready to talk,” says Harp. Teens are unpredictable and can blurt out thoughts about death when you least expect it. “Teens are in the process of individuation and when a death occurs, it puts them in a hard place because they want to ‘be an adult’ but they may have to admit they still need their parents,” says Harp.
Other things you can do include:
• Answer their concerns, don’t downplay them. If you don’t know an answer, be honest and say so.
• Remind them it’s the person’s life, not the death, that’s significant.
• Ask others, such as ministers, youth leaders or friends to check on your teen if you don’t know how to handle certain situations.
• Enroll your teen in a peer support group. “Peer support groups are the best because they give the teen a sense of control and connect them with others their age who are also grieving,” explains Harp. “Most teens will benefit from a peer support group that deals with grief, rather than talk to parents.”
Grieving is unique and personal. When you give love, understanding and support, you might be surprised at how well your children grow through grief.
Brenda Nixon is a freelance writer and author of Parenting Power in the Early Years (Wine Press, $12.95).
FOR MORE INFO
The Death of a Friend: Helping Children Cope with Grief and Loss. This 15-minute video is distributed by The Good Grief Program, Judge Baker Guidance Center; 295 Longwood Avenue; Boston, MA 02115, www.goodgriefprogram.com
The Hickory Chair, by L. Fraustino. (Scholastic, $15.95). Depicts an ethnic family with a visually impaired boy who grieves the death of his grandmother.
The Mourning Handbook: The Most Complete Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying by Helen Fitzgerald (Simon & Schuster, $14).
Tough Boris, by Mem Fox. (Voyager Books, $7). About a pirate who cries when his parrot dies. Teaches that people can be both tough and tender.
Your Home in Heaven, by Donna Wyland. (WinePress Publishing, $11.95). Children’s picture book with Christian answers to questions about death.
Center for Grieving Children and Their Families, Phila. Provides bereavement groups and other services for Philadelphia-area families. 215-427-6767, www.grievingchildren.org
Mommy’s Light, Lionville, PA. Organization dedicated to helping Delaware Valley children who have lost their mothers. 610-725-9790, www.mommyslight.org
National Programs and Websites
Compassionate Friends, a website that offers assistance to parents, grandparents and siblings following the death of a child of any age. www.compassionatefriends.org
Good Grief Program, a website that provides guidance and assistance to parents and teachers on all aspects of childhood grief. www.goodgriefprogram.com
Kidsaid, an adult-supervised website for, by and about kids dealing with grief. www.kidsaid.com